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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 January, 2005, 13:05 GMT
Pilgrims 'stone Satan' for Hajj
Pilgrims throw stones at pillars in Mina
The crowds are being carefully regulated around the Jamarat
A top Saudi cleric has urged Muslims to shun militant forms of Islam, as pilgrims carried out one of the final rituals of the Hajj.

Militants were using "misguided" interpretations to justify violence, Mecca's Imam Abdul Rahman Sudeis said.

About 2.5 million pilgrims hurled stones at pillars in Mina, meant to symbolise the rejection of Satan.

They were able to take advantage of improved facilities brought in to reduce risks of a stampede.

"Because Muslims strayed from moderation, we are now suffering this dangerous phenomenon of branding people infidels and inciting Muslims to rise against their leaders," said Sheikh Abdul Rahman.

His sermon at the Grand Mosque was dedicated to those Muslims performing the Hajj pilgrimage, many of whom were present.

Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of a global campaign of violence waged by Islamic extremists inspired by al-Qaeda, with scores of deaths in a string of attacks since May 2003.

Crowds of pilgrims

Pilgrims were able to begin the stoning ceremony early after a special fatwa, or religious edict, was issued to prevent a human crush along the walkways past the pillars.

Thousands started arriving after midnight, rather than after dawn prayers, as used to be the case.

"We were worried about the crowds and we had heard some real horror stories, so we feel much better," said one early arrival, Ahmed Sodikin, from Bandung, Indonesia.

Sudanese pilgrim Jamal Adel praised the Saudi authorities for modifying the traditional rules.

"I'm sure God will accept this. It's in the best interest of all."

Last year, 251 pilgrims were trampled to death at Mina.

Improved facilities

New footbridges with emergency exits have been built since last year and three new pillars have been erected that are wider and taller than ones used previously, so more pilgrims could pelt rocks at the same time.

Stone gathering at Muzdalifa
Pebbles are gathered on the plane of Muzdalifa, between Arafat and Mina
About 10,000 police patrolled the area to ensure the smooth flow of the ritual.

The stoning ceremony recalls the Prophet Abraham's throwing stones at Satan who had tried to dissuade him from sacrificing his son Ishmael, according to Islamic tradition.

The Hajj reached its zenith on Wednesday with pilgrims converging on Mount Arafat for an afternoon of prayer and contemplation of God.

Thursday is celebrated around the Muslim world as Eid al-Adha, one of the most important religious holiday of the year. Pilgrims will resume the stoning ceremony on Friday and Saturday.

Every able-bodied adult Muslim who can afford to make the trip is obliged to perform the Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, once in their lives.

The Hajj takes place over five days

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